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SALT LAKE CITY — Poll results released Monday show nearly two-thirds of Utah voters oppose amending the state constitution to remove a requirement that income taxes be used only for education, seen as the next step for lawmakers following a controversial tax reform package already targeted for repeal by a citizens referendum.
The Utah Legislature — which voted last month in a special session to reduce state income taxes while raising state sales tax on food, gas and some services but did not deal with the education piece of tax reform — is expected to consider making the constitutional change in the regular session that begins Jan. 27.
But an amendment to the Utah Constitution to allow income tax revenues to be spent on state needs other than education would have to be approved by the 2020 Legislature with at least two-thirds support in both the House and Senate, as well as by voters in the November election.
Yet only 35% of registered voters agree that the Utah Constitution should be amended, according to the poll for UtahPolicy.com, while 65% believe the constitution “should be kept the same to provide guaranteed funds for higher and public education.”
Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said he wasn’t surprised by the poll results.
“I think most people in Utah understand the value of education,” Adams said. Lawmakers will be discussing “the best way to fund education and the value of the earmark. I think the goal would be to try and find consensus,” he said. “I think public sentiment will be part of the process.”
The Senate leader acknowledged they’re not there yet and said there’s a chance there could be no action taken next session.
Besides the amendment seen as giving lawmakers more budget flexibility, the education piece of tax reform also includes making it easier for local school districts to raise property taxes while ensuring the state covers enrollment growth and inflation.
“Yes, of course there’s a chance. I don’t think we have consensus yet,” Adams said. “Those will be decisions we will address as we start the process during the session.”
So far, only one lawmaker has filed a resolution to start the amendment process — Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful. But Ward said he requested the resolution be drafted months ago as an alternative to the tax reform package that was ultimately passed.
Ward’s HJR5 would add to the constitution a requirement that the state must give “sufficient funding” for a public school system to provide “an adequate education” to students, while removing the earmark on income tax revenues.
“I think this is the best solution because it takes off the budget constraint but it still constitutionally honors the fact that we want to be sure there’s sufficient funding for education,” Ward said. He said he’s not sure his resolution will get very far next session, since “everything is still up in the air” because of the referendum effort.
LaVarr Webb, publisher of UtahPolicy.com, said amending the constitution wouldn’t be easy.
“It’s complicated, and the impacts are complicated. It’s really easy just to say, ‘eliminate the earmark for education,’ and most people will oppose that,” Webb said. “They’ll never get it done without strong support from the education community. ... To win the vote next November, will take a campaign, a real campaign to help people understand.”
More than 90% of teachers surveyed for the Utah Education Association are against amending the constitution, UEA President Heidi Matthews said. She said “it’s not surprising to me in the least” that the majority of the public is also opposed.
“Our educators, and people who care about public education, we recognize the constitution is a promise to fund our schools in perpetuity. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we have. We’re not opposed to have a better guarantee of funding, but to simply eliminate it without a replacement ... it’s just not good for kids,” Matthews said.
She said an acceptable constitutional guarantee would have to spell out that the state’s investment in schools will be increased on top of paying for enrollment growth and inflationary costs. The state’s education fund that comes from income tax revenues will fall $639 million as a result of the tax reform legislation.
That drop “places us in a precarious position,” Matthews said, but it’s still worth the fight for the constitutional guarantee that income tax revenues will only be used for education. Until there’s a better option available, she said, “we’ll focus on what we do have.”
The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points and was conducted by Y2 Analytics for the online political news source of 911 registered Utah voters from Nov. 29 through Dec. 7, 2019, before lawmakers met in special session.
The same poll found that 68% of Utahns oppose tax reform legislation intended to offset lagging growth in sales tax revenues as consumer spending shifts from goods to services, compared to 31% who said they favor the fixes, according to results released last week.
It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we have. We’re not opposed to have a better guarantee of funding, but to simply eliminate it without a replacement ... it’s just not good for kids.
–UEA President Heidi Matthews
Opponents of tax reform are circulating a referendum to put the option to repeal the legislation before voters on the November ballot, possible only because the Republican legislative leaders behind the package failed to win two-thirds majorities in the special session vote.
“They didn’t listen to what people actually said, that’s why people are upset,” said Fred Cox, the former GOP state lawmaker behind the referendum. “The fact they can’t get this constitution amendment passed means what they just passed is a mistake.”
Referendum supporters have until Jan. 21 to collect nearly 116,000 voter signatures distributed among at least 15 of the state’s 29 counties. Cox said as of Monday afternoon that more than 7,800 signatures had either been turned into county clerks or were ready to be submitted.
The lieutenant governor’s office, which oversees elections, reported Monday that 1,907 referendum signatures had been verified by county clerks in 13 counties. Elections officials have until mid-March to determine if the referendum qualifies for the ballot, and if it does, the tax reform passed in special session would be put on hold.
Cox acknowledged the number of signatures collected so far may not seem like a lot, but said the effort is spread out across the state. He said at referendum signing events, people are leaving with petition packets of their own, and that as of Monday afternoon, 5,000 packets had been printed, each with room for 49 voters to sign.
“That snowball effect is working really well, but it may take a week before you see some of those numbers start showing up,” he said. “We may have only a couple of thousand, but we’ve got hundreds of people with packets getting those signatures.”